PBS in the Classroom

Bringing the Universe into the Classroom

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August 22, 2017

“We will go home when the sun goes down.” “We want to stay for the sunset.”  “Let's go early to see the sun come up.” These are some of the expressions my students have heard over and over again by the time they get to my kindergarten classroom. Our school district is on the North Shore of Boston, and school children enjoy the village playground where the shores are beautiful. While their parents may be interested in the colors and striking beauty of the beach at dawn and twilight, their children are most likely splashing in the waves, awash in beautiful hue, finishing sand castles and playing in the sand, dreading the sun set which marks their departure. The language they hear about the sun, together with seeing the sun disappear behind the horizon, strengthens common misconceptions about our universe. 

Bringing the Universe to the Classroom through Technology

In the summer of 2016, I began working with fellow Teacher Advisors across the country to review and use with my students’ prototype resources produced in collaboration of WGBH and  NASA entitled, Bringing the Universe into America’s Classrooms. The Interactive Lesson, Sun and Shadows, transformed my teaching and deepened the learning experience for my students.  Young children learn by doing, and redoing, and finally by translating that knowledge into their own world view. At first, I was hesitant to use technology to teach about a subject that we could experience firsthand in the real world. I was fully invested in the hands-on lessons, lesson plans, resources and activities that were embedded in the module, they were expertly designed with the disposition of young learners in mind.  However, I wasn’t sure how technology fit into my pedagogy. The resources in this educational module would not only assist me in my teaching, but would invite me to let go of one of my own misconceptions about the use of media and technology with young children. I discovered that technology could be more than just a babysitter with bells and whistles to keep kids’ attention. I utilized these resources to introduce a topic, provide my students with games and activities that would help them authentically apply their learning, review content, and best of all, provide a glimpse into the wonder and beauty of the universe, with state-of-the-art imagery provided by NASA. 

The Sun in Motion

The module contains several images of the sun. One video, the "Jewel Box Sun", uses different wavelengths of light to highlight features of the sun that could not be seen otherwise. One section focuses on still images that share a glimpse of the textured surface and sun spots on our closest star. The most impactful image to my students was "The Sun in Motion” video--a time-lapse video showing the constant activity on the surface of the sun. The students were used to drawing the sun like a complete circle with triangle rays, or long line rays, sometimes with sunglasses and often like a slice of pizza nestled in the corner of their white paper. The sun was often used in drawings to show that the story they were telling took place outside, yet it was never the main focus of their pictures. The real imagery in this video challenged all their prior knowledge. In fact, what they thought they could see in the sky was actually something quite different. The children began to incorporate this new fiery ball, this sphere of activity, into their drawing assignments as well as their own free time drawings. In addition, students were using new vocabulary throughout their school day. We sang songs, and made models to illustrate the fact that the sun does not move across our sky, instead the Earth is rotating. The sun does not really go down or up!

Solar Flares, Storms and Spots – Learning the Sun’s Vocabulary 

Through anecdotal observation, we noticed an increase in the use of content based vocabulary. Phrases like solar flare, solar storms, sunspots, and casting shadow, were increasingly common in instructional time, free time, and outdoor recess. We used these phrases to practice mandated handwriting and phonic lessons. The students’ interest in the sun allowed us to integrate NGSS science practices via model making and observational drawing.

Planned art projects allowed children to translate their new knowledge about the sun by creating 3-D models, watercolor paintings, collages, crayon, pencil and marker drawings, and observational drawings labeling parts of the sun for their science journals. Some kids could really comprehend the new content, integrate it and apply it in different contexts. Some used the new content successfully, but didn't have a full understanding yet, and a smaller number just enjoyed the imagery at face value. Those kids perhaps were not developmentally ready to integrate the abstract notion of the sun, but we were building the foundation for that milestone to occur. The images made something that is quite abstract into something more tangible. The media and technology resources allowed every student in the class to interact with the material at their own level, thus supporting our inclusive classroom.

Though the images of the sun were the most impactful to the children's learning, the many shadow observation activities provided the children with common practical experiences and an opportunity to expand and use new vocabulary.

They learned through hands-on activities the relationship between the location of the light source and object to the size of the shadow, as well as the correct arrangement needed of a light source and object to cast a shadow. The media games on these topics not only reinforced the content but provided support to the varied skills of our learners. The "Shadow Shapes" and "Night Light" interactive games provide students with a tool to review their learning and their keyboarding skills. The games are designed to become more complex as the user's skills grow. The deliberate design of the media transformed my philosophy of the use of technology with young kids. The activities and media game applications provided a genuine avenue for children to gain access to  new content, revisit that content in several ways and transform  their newly acquired  knowledge into skills needed to move forward.

While the Sun is Fixed - Our Learning is Flexible

The students were not alone in this educational journey. I found that the use of this media and technology provided me with an effective new tool that could support the unique learning styles of young students. Though the sun’s position is fixed, my professional development as an educator is flexible. Together with my students, we could examine our own misconceptions and learn something new. 


Kerry Zagarella is a Kindergarten teacher at the Winthrop School in Ipswich, MA. She has degrees in Theater and Creative Arts, and mentors young teachers in early childhood education. Kerry is working on providing “tinker spaces” for young children. This is her second year as a Teacher Advisor for WGBH’s Bringing the Universe to America’s Classrooms project, funded by NASA.*


*This activity is funded by NASA under cooperative agreement award No. NNX16AD71A.  Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Kerry Zagarella

Kerry Zagarella Kindergarten Teacher

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